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This item is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

A decade would seem to be a long time in literature. Poetry Review and Agenda produced issues at the year's turn which assess the State of Poetry, the former concentrating on descriptive essays by various interested parties, the latter on brief personal statements by poets.

Poetry Review takes no special editorial line: the combination of literary criticism, literary sociology and journalism, not without an occasional gust of polemic, is characteristic of the magazine under Peter Forbes's even-handed editorship. His Poetry Review with its comprehensive review section, thematic issues and assiduous attention to the broad main stream, is a useful magazine of record, as it were, and as such answers to the ethos of the past decade.

Agenda (volume 27, number 3) is a different kettle of fish: it has that cantankerous, unfashionable feel which has made it, even at its most infuriating, a necessary tonic. It is a literary enterprise in an older, urgent tradition of journals with evolving missions. It has suffered undeniable longueurs and aberrations, it has backed some strange horses; yet it retains definition. There are certain figures of the past, certain formal discoveries of modernism and tones of verse which, Agenda's editors assert by argument and example, remain vital resources whatever fashion might seem to dictate.

If Stand had not appropriated the word "commitment" to define its political posture, one might be tempted to say that Agenda is par excellence the journal committed to poetry. It resists (whether by instinct or design) the pressure to address readers in their own terms. It sets out less to preach to the converted than to convert. Over the past twenty-odd years I have come to love the hairy typeface, the austere design, and the surprise of essential issues - on Ungaretti, David Jones, Pound, Lewis and H.D., for instance.

The past decade has certainly marked an evolution in public attitudes to poetry. The news has got about that poetry can sell, and by extension that good poetry does sell. Funding bodies have altered their modes of appraisal. It is indeed beneficial that they have helped some disorderly operations clean up their bookkeeping and taught them to understand numbers. It is good that they have assisted their clients with marketing advice and encouraged greater attention to circulation. There is something appropriately democratic about this: the literary "public sector" is no longer as protected as it was in the 1970s; the word "elite" is less often heard.

But there is another democratic pressure at work which is less welcome, a pressure which, for example, threatens to inhibit arts association funding of Enitharmon Press whose very future seems precarious. Part of that pressure is, no doubt, engendered by a sense that with limited funds available for literature it is a risk to admit long-term cases to the already crowded subsidy wards of local and national Arts Councils. But part, too, derives from other imperatives, from the positive discrimination in favour of more accessible, more reader-friendly publications, or in favour of multi-culturalism or community activity-writing groups and the like. This has consequences for the presentation of work, but also for editorial selection.

A special issue of a poetry magazine devoted to Ungaretti is (it seems to me) more likely to be of durable use to writers and poetry readers than, say, a special issue on poetry and ecology, poetry and the bomb or poetry against the new conservatism. And yet ecology and bomb issues will naturally outsell Ungaretti issues: they are news-worthy whatever the quality of the work included. They will be commented on more avidly in the press than issues which disclose unfamiliar literary ground to readers and writers. There is a large potential market for one, a relatively small readership for the other.

It used to be argued that the small independent poetry magazines and presses needed funding because what they published (we now call it "product") was of cultural importance but limited in its initial readership. The argument seems to have altered somewhat: now enterprises need funding in order to extend their constituencies and will be rewarded in accordance with their ability to do so, to imitate on a small scale what the larger commercial houses do. To address, with the freedom which subsidy make possible, a readership, in other than that readership's assumed terms, has come to seem only one of several conflicting objectives.

The survival instinct in small literary enterprises is strong. Survival requires adjustment, and some kinds of pressure are benign in that they lead to better use of resources. The pressures which go further and tend to alter the inherent character and the product of enterprises with something less than a populist mission may lead, in the 1990s, to an impoverishment of our "literary environment".

In Agenda's "State of Poetry" issue Pauline Stainer defines what she calls "sacred access" - now unfashionable - and declares: "but I believe the assimilating imagination is not enough. We are defined by disparity". She praises specific poems in which the metaphoric charge is (in William Soutar's phrase) "older than the self". She quotes Coleridge, too: "poetry 'demands a severe keeping'". Her densely allusive piece raises an issue which must be addressed: whether and how poets can (if they wish) transcend the decorums of irony and paradox and break old ground.

I believe that her concern relates to the wider issues of choice. The commercial magazine, the commercial publisher, can take risks on the work of "the assimilating imagination". There is am a market for it. But that other work which earns its readership more gradually because it makes greater demands (demands of unfamiliarity, of difference) has a place - a vulnerable one should the populist decorum prevail.

This is a matter suggested, too, in a piece by David Gascoyne:

Emily Dickinson, whose voice is still for many readers acceptably 'modern', wrote poetry mainly concerned with 'nature, love, death and eternity'. As long as there are poets who deal with these themes with an individual voice and personally forged vocabulary, I thought, poetry will continue to fulfill a perennial function. But then it occurred to me that eternity can not longer be regarded as a 'buzz-word' for the majority of poets writing in English today.

I am not certain what Gascoyne's attitude is to the word "majority": but what concerns us here is that significant minority of writers for whom space ought to be left in an increasingly secular culture, where the sole legacy of modernism would appear to be an inescapable irony of expression. It is no accident that Gascoyne closes his piece with a superbly ironic passage from Robinson Jeffers:

The spirit that flickers and hurts in humanity
Shines brighter from better lamps; but from all shines.
Look to it: prepare for the long winter: spring is far off.

This item is taken from PN Review 73, Volume 16 Number 5, May - June 1990.

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